In Livy's narrative of the Bacchanalian affair of 186 BCE (39.8-20), we see a process through which Roman society's views on religious and sexual norms are brought to coincide with practices by means of legal restrictions. The celebration of the Bacchic mysteries, a religious activity primarily belonging to the sphere of women, spills over to the sexual practices of male citizens, especially those of young age. The episode has been examined by scholars interested in determining the various dimensions of this historical event, especially in conjunction with the Senatus Consultum de Bacchanalibus (CIL2 581 = ILLRP 511; e.g. Gruen) or as it relates to our knowledge of women's role in the Bacchic mysteries (Beard et al., Takács, Schultz). It has also been examined from various literary perspectives, with especially illuminating the influence of Roman comedy on Livy's version of the events (e.g. Scafuro, Walsh). Most relative to my thesis, Williams has argued that the episode is concerned with the problem of illicit sex in general, not with homosexuality in particular. In this paper, I argue that social views on homosexuality are at the heart of the issues in this narrative and go hand in hand with a perceived empowerment of women through the performance of their religious tasks. I suggest that Livy creates a correlation between women's empowerment and young men's disempowerment, evident in the latter's depiction as passive sexual objects. An examination of Livy's narrative shows that women's empowerment through their roles in the celebration of the mysteries abets and even promotes a relaxation of sexual mores, offers an opportunity for their removal, and threatens the social and sexual identity of young male citizens. This threat is not only expressed by means of metaphors but also through the depiction of the mysteries as physically endangering young men's lives. The state's intervention succeeds in effecting the necessary realignment between social views and practices but only through the inflictment of terror and bloodshed on a vast portion of the citizen body. This in turn raises new questions on the relationship between state ideology and social practice.
More specifically, the narrative begins with social norms on religious and sexual activity being at a disconnect with social practices, and with the authorities apparently unaware of this disconnect. The consul Postumius gradually becomes privy to the true nature of the Bacchic mysteries which are revealed to involve all kinds of illegal and illicit activity, from homosexual relationships to forged wills and murder. In fact, the strict correlation of all three testifies to the importance of the threat caused by homosexual behavior. The disconnect between society and state is personified in the figure of Faecenia Hispala, a former slave prostitute who emerges as a pillar of uprightness in the face of rampant moral and sexual corruption. Hispala's status illustrates this purported reversal between status and morality in Roman society. Respectable matrons such as Aebutius' mother Duronia are engaged in illicit and illegal activities, empowered by the performance of their religious tasks. Duronia's power over her son as a mother is compounded by her ability to initiate him to the Bacchic mysteries, which in turn gives her the opportunity to potentially effect his sexual corruption and/or physical death. The importance of illicit sexual behavior (of which homosexual activity appears to be its greatest facet) is illustrated by the frequent use of the term stuprum (10 instances: 39.8.7, 39.8.8, 39.10.7, 39.13.10, 39.13.13, 39.13.14) and its correlation with violence (paired with vis or caedes in 3 instances: 39.8.8, 39.10.7, 39.18.4). The violence the mysteries inflict upon male citizens is mirrored by the violence eventually exercised by the state, thus raising questions about the legitimacy of the state's intervention in the eyes of the social body and on the real state of social views on homosexuality in general.